Death Penalty Isn't a Winner

Andrew Welsh-Huggins investigates why Ohio is one of the busiest death penalty states

Sep 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Offhand, what would you say Ohio has in common with the state of Texas? A propensity to execute its prisoners, that’s what.

In his recently released book No Winners Here Tonight, Columbus-based Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins says that in 1958 four states accounted for half the 48 U.S. executions (Ohio, Texas, California, Georgia), and by 2000 Ohio was second only to Texas in the number of people put to death each year.

“Most Ohioans think of the state as moderate,” he said in a recent e-mail interview, “but my guess is that three factors play a role.” Those factors are: a strong capital punishment law; high crime rates (particularly in the 1980s), which encouraged prosecutors to implement the law; and Ohio’s three large (and many mid-sized) cities that produce “their fair share of homicides,” crimes open to death penalty prosecution.

Welsh-Huggins, whose AP assignments include state government, federal courts and criminal justice, wrote the book after completing the first-ever analysis of Ohio’s implementation of the death penalty, a project that “took almost three years of research, ran in May 2005 and was front page news around the state. It seemed a natural topic for a more extended look at capital punishment here,” he says. He found “no evidence that the number of death sentences bore any relationship to the actual number of homicides committed in a given year.”

In the index to No Winners, Cincinnati has 16 page references, Cleveland has 12 and Columbus eight. Among the Cincinnati references is Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, cited as “one of the few prosecutors opposed to accepting plea bargains in death penalty cases and willing to talk about it.” In 2003 Deters said, “There’s a lot of lazy lawyers out there. You’re not here to take pleas. You’re here to try cases.”

Also noted is U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt who, as a state representative in 2002, successfully promoted a law allowing a harsh penalty without proving a capital case, a simpler procedure than seeking the death penalty.

Ohio’s current death penalty law dates from 1981 and was created by Richard Finan, then state senator from Evendale and now a registered lobbyist. Welsh-Huggins says that in the early years of the law Hamilton County’s prosecutor’s office focused sharply on evidence and pursued the death penalty whenever possible, while elsewhere prosecutors “went after them without the evidence” and had fewer convictions.

The book’s subtitle is a succinct outline of its theme: Race, Politics, and Geography in One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States. The title No Winners Here Tonight refers to a statement made by Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery at the close of a long-delayed, emotionally complicated 1999 execution that did not go smoothly. She made a public announcement stating that, while she was confident the justice system had functioned correctly, there were “no winners here tonight.”

In his thoughtful, even-handed book, Welsh-Huggins makes the point that capital punishment is carried out unevenly — in Ohio and elsewhere — and has been a contentious, passionately-felt issue for generations. He considers capital punishment on the wane in Ohio, although the current high number of death row inhabitants whose appeals are exhausted will probably produce a temporary spike in executions. The Schmidt-generated law and the current Life Without Parole law allow acceptable alternatives to the death sentence.

“Eventually, death row will be much smaller and we’ll have few executions,” Welsh-Huggins says.

NO WINNERS HERE TONIGHT is the newest addition to the Ohio University Press Series on Law, Society and Politics in the Midwest. See all the titles here.